finding goodness

kenesaw walkWhen I was child, my dad’s dental office was attached to our house. On one side of the door was our private, domestic world: home. Pass through the back room with its overflowing bookcases full of dental textbooks and journals, maneuver around the desk piled high with bills and paperwork, step through the small brown door by the laundry room, and you were in the reception area of my parents’ busy practice. Many afternoons I’d forgo the TV reruns my brother was watching in our den and slip into my dad’s quiet waiting room to read magazines. I loved the jokes in the Readers Digest, the photographs in Life, the lavish meals in Gourmet, and, most of all, the hidden pictures in Highlights.

There was a trick to solving those optical illusion puzzles with their lists of random objects hiding in plain sight. At first glance, all you’d see was the scene itself, a complex drawing of animals in the jungle, perhaps, or a crowded playground scene. But squint your eyes just enough to change the focus, and you could begin to discern the outlines of those other things: a slice of bread, a pencil, a teacup, a button. The only way to find the button amidst the tangle of palm fronds and swinging monkeys was to blot out everything else. You had to narrow your gaze and go in search of that one thing you most wanted to see.

My life lately has felt as complex as those multi-layered drawings of my childhood. On the surface, things appear orderly enough. But what I’ve experienced internally is a series of invisible, painful losses — each a challenge to my equanimity, to my sense of the universe as a fair and benign place. Feeling fragile and overwhelmed, I’ve been experimenting with an emotional version of that old eye-squinting thing. I keep thinking I’ll suffer less if I can just look more deeply into the picture. Somewhere, I know, goodness is hiding in plain sight. My task is simply to find it.

And so I repeat these words to myself like a mantra: “Look for the good.” And then I narrow my focus until I begin to see what I’m hunting for: the delicate outline of a blessing, some well-camouflaged scrap of goodness amidst the hurt, something to be grateful for.

“Look for the good,” was the intention I carried with me to Georgia last week, as I flew south to see my son Jack for the first time in six months. Six months! It’s still almost inconceivable to me that I could go so long without seeing one of my children. Since he left New Hampshire in May to change schools and begin working toward a degree in sound engineering in Atlanta, Jack hasn’t slept under this roof for one night. We stay in touch by phone and text, but I’d never seen where he lives, or met his roommates, or ridden in his car. He was about to turn 22. It was time to go. [continue…]

Daring, dreaming, doing — words to guide & inspire

TessI do have a dog story to tell here, but that will have to wait until I can do justice to Tess, the newest member of our family, a sweet border collie rescue girl who’s as happy to have a home as we are to give her one. At the moment, there isn’t much time for writing. We’re all pretty consumed with getting to know each other, mastering the basics on both sides. There are hikes to take, new lessons to learn, trust to earn, routines to work out. More on Tess soon.

Meanwhile, both our sons have been home this month, all of us here together for the first time since Christmas. Over the next week, Jack will return to Atlanta and Henry will leave for his summer job directing musicals at a theatre in the Catskills. For now, though, I’m grateful for every family dinner, walks and talks, the fullness of our days, the peace of nights when everyone I love is safely gathered under one roof. Soon, the house will be quieter, the refrigerator easier to keep filled, my days at home my own again. Plenty of time then for reflections and blog posts.

Still, I can’t resist sharing a few of the things we’ve been watching and reading and discussing around here, while hanging out in the kitchen and in between basketball playoff games and Red Sox losses.

Being in one’s early twenties isn’t easy – not quite launched into full-scale independent adulthood but no longer an adolescent; so much to figure out and no road map to point the way forward; so many choices while already a few doors are closing for good, the “right” path rarely if ever easy to discern.

Pursue a dream at all costs or take the first job that offers a modicum of security? What’s the real definition of success? What constitutes a good life? Is “good” synonymous with meaningful? How does anyone summon the vision to dream, the courage to dare, the will to do, especially when the doing isn’t part of the plan or involves some precipitous twists in the road? When, as a parent, should I speak up and when should I quietly reserve judgment and opinion? [continue…]

Full circle

Henry in TImes Square, 1995Times Square, New York City, early on a Sunday morning, summer 1996.  The day before, we’d taken our son Henry, age six, to see his first musical, Beauty & the Beast, on Broadway.  A friend working on the show had reserved our seats, front and center, and had arranged a backstage tour after the final curtain.  Henry had been allowed to walk around on the set.  He’d touched the teacups and candlesticks and glimpsed the piano gleaming in the orchestra pit.  He’d shaken hands with the Beast himself, who had been kind and friendly to this scrawny little kid who knew every song in the show by heart.  And now, the next morning, all Henry wanted was to go back and do it all over again.

My husband snapped the photo because it was so not like our shy, mild-mannered son to be demanding.  And it was so not like me to ever speak sternly to him.  And yet, there we were, facing off in the first (and pretty much the only) argument we’ve ever had. [continue…]

Ready for Air–and a give-away

RFA-Cover-194x300It wasn’t lost on me that I read Kate Hopper’s lovely memoir, Ready for Air, earlier this month, while in the air myself.

Beside me, squeezed into the too-small middle seat, my 6’1″ son Jack was reading his own book.  I kept glancing over at him, aware that this was the last trip the two of us would take together for quite a while.  Aware, too, that I was already preparing myself for the moment when I would bid him goodbye in Atlanta, leave him to his new life as a student there, and fly home without him.

Kate’s subtitle is “A Journey through Premature Motherhood.”  It sounds specific, and it is.  This is a story about a baby girl born too soon, about a young woman’s struggle to be strong and brave in the face of one terrifying complication after another, of a marriage that is tested and ultimately strengthened by adversity, of a baby whose struggle to survive offers both a compelling read and something better: a reminder that, in the largest sense, our human stories are all variations on a theme.  For isn’t the real journey — through motherhood, through every relationship we ever have, through life itself  — really about learning to work with things as they are rather than as we wish they could be? [continue…]

This is 55

H & KI’ve been fifty-five for a little over a week now. Rounding this corner, finding myself squarely in the long-shadowed afternoon of my own life, has given me pause.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately gazing out the window in my kitchen, watching the sunlit leaves float from tree to ground.  The days, the hours, even the moments, feel ripe and full — time to be cherished rather than rushed through.

And so, on this autumn afternoon I shut my laptop.  For the first time in years, I pick up a pad of paper and a pen instead.  I grab a sweater and head outside to write.  Perhaps what I’m yearning for is a different kind of knowing – words that come from the still, silent place in my soul, a glimpse of my own depths, some intimation of my rightful place in the world now that I’ve crested the arc of life and begun my descent down the other side.

55.  How strange it feels to write that pair of fives, to associate them with me. Have I really been alive that long, half a century plus five?  And what exactly am I, now that I’m no longer technically middle-aged but not exactly old yet, either?

I turn to a fresh page, brush a stray leaf from my hair.  [continue…]